Impressions from Steve Henn:
I can’t stand it when critics criticize music, poetry, fiction, whatever, for what it is not rather than for what it is, which is why this guy’s review of Andrew Morris’s formidable paean to the cultural oblivion known as northern Indiana (http://www.nuvo.net/MusicBlog/archives/2011/09/30/review-andrew-morris-great-corn-detasseling) annoys me. I don’t think Morris’s songwriting skills can be jettisoned simply because his recording process isn’t slick enough, because no engineers were paid to package him in a more palatable way – to who? the musical sophisticates of Marion County? I came of age in the early 90s, an era known for Kurt Cobain’s raggedy voice and the lo fi recording techniques of Guided By Voices; to me, Robert Pollard’s poorly recorded wail of “she runs through the night / as if nobody cares / she screams and she cries / and ignores all the stares / she wants me to come / but I’ll never go in there” in “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” can never be equaled in a way I’m sure Bob Dylan’s “how does it feel / to be on your own?” can never be equaled to a listener who grew up in the 60s, in a way whatever screamo band or some other sub-sub-sub genre of non-corporate rock (all of which was dubbed “indie” in the 90s) speaks to today’s teenaged music fans. My point is, for someone whose first great epiphany about how magical good songwriting can be came at 19, when I first heard GBV’s Bee Thousand, the dirtier the recording process, the better. There’s more passion in the raw voice and the missed notes in a lo-fi homerecording of a serious songwriter than in 1000 slickly produced or autotuned radio hits, and passion, ladies and gentlemen, is what Andrew Morris gives us in The Great Corn Detasseling Album.
I should pause here for a disclaimer. Morris is a former student of mine who has reviewed both a book of poetry I wrote and an album on which I played drums, here, on General Thad. You might assume I’ve got about as much journalistic integrity in critiquing his work as the 700 Club does in endorsing Rick Perry for President. Maybe that’s true; hell, I don’t know. As Morris himself told me, if incest was good enough for the monarchies of medieval Europe, it’s good enough for us. (He’s been to college.) I’m going to run through all the songs and give you my impressions and ultimately encourage you to find a copy of the album. Look, there’s a helluva lot worse crap out there you could be listening to. Ever hear of Sugar Ray? Awful. Their lead singer took a job as an anchor for Entertainment Tonight, eventually, probably because he ran out of things to say that weren’t scripted for him.
I enjoy listening to the album. Maybe I should start with that. And it’s not because he ripped off the title from a poem that appears in Unacknowledged Legislations. The first track, “Indiana O Indiana” starts with the faux hesitation of the first line, but quickly the mandolin-and-guitar romper fills with the whoops and hollers of Morris and his musical compatriots. It’s not so much the lyrics that click in this one – they’re serviceable, but not fantastic – but the harmonized voices and some blazing, sloppy mandolin solos that make you feel like you just stumbled out of the only bar in Etna Green at 3 a.m. and maybe you should call your best bud from high school, get him out of bed to come pick you up, rather than slide your Chevy Nova into a cornfield in your inebriate state and fall asleep over the gearshift. Another disclaimer: that never happened to me. It’s a slightly extended metaphor.
Track 2, “Old Brown River,” is much more impressive lyrically, even moreso when delivered in Morris’s emphatic Hoosier crooning: “Old brown river / can’t you alter your flow, alter your flow / I don’t think I like the way you choose to go” might not look all that special on the page, but there’s enough of a hook in the guitar line that, when married with the vocal delivery, sounds just right. A short electric guitar solo over the acoustic rhythm is also a nice touch in the last third of the song or so.
With “The Trite Call to Arms Song” I’m going to claim that Morris is doing too much overthinking in his songwriting. With his use of the world “Trite” in the title he’s pretty clearly indicating that he finds the sentiment of the song’s speaker rather asinine. I’m a fan of political satire, have gotten plenty of mileage out of it in poems, but Morris’s implicit critique of the speaker of the poem is too pat, and at times I can’t figure out if he means “you’re really not free when the only sides / are left and right” or if he’s holding that up as a simplistic underanalysis of contemporary politics.
The best thing about “Keep Your Feet on the Carpet” is Samantha Garber’s French horn and the synth accents. It’s a song worth listening to but really functions as more of a prelude to “Grandma” (which Morris helpfully indicates in his lyrics and liner notes is “for my grandma”), which presumably tells the story of his grandma coming home to Warsaw from Flint, Michigan to have a baby. Her father, in Warsaw, is ill, and the song reaches an emotional crescendo when she tells the nurse “take the baby to my dad” and the nurse says “I wish I could, but the Lord giveth / And the Lord taketh” – surely a sentiment anybody raised in a church in northern Indiana (and most of us are) has heard before, but something Morris riffs on vocally at the end of the tune before it expires in a jumble of rapid guitar strumming.
I’ve got to warn you, the next track, “When I was Five,” is a downer. It’s not poorly written. But there are 3 dead animals, two of them pets, in the song, and an audience Morris addresses with the ending lines “but I’m not so strong now / like I used to be before / because when I lost you / I lost so much more.” Touching song; haunting vocal delivery.
The tone changes rather abruptly on “Meth Head,” my favorite track on the album, in which Morris muses “everybody’s reading the paper / saying ‘Goddamn another meth head!’ / but nobody’s asking any questions / like, for example, ‘why we got so many meth heads?’” It’s anchored by a bouncy banjo line, and is an ironically playful estimation of the local meth problem that some see as the scourge of Kosciusko County.
“Curse” is written in layers of guitar, Jared Boze’s trombone, and piano, and it exemplifies what Morris and his coplayers do so well on so many songs on the album. Rather than settle for simply guitar and voice, Morris mixes in a few additional instruments, adding depth to tracks that might sound a little thin without an extra element or two. The trombone compliments vocal and recording styles that make “Curse” sound like an old blues recording, as Morris tells the story of Mathew Springer, the first white man to build a house in Warsaw, who, in the tune at least, is cursed by an Algonquian Indian, a curse that carries on to this day in the “outward exuberance and inner pain / methamphetamines and a brain drain” that the local population continues to negotiate.
“Coyote Hunt” is the story of Morris going out to shoot with an unidentified old man, and Morris’s moment of hesitation when a female coyote and “her two kids” are flushed from the woods. Morris, or the speaker of the song at least, stifles his inner objection and raises the gun to shoot, because, as he says in the song “I want to be like you, old man.” On a side note, Morris can identify his rhetorical strategy in the last few lines of the verse as a polysyndeton thanks to the careful attention he paid to lessons on classical rhetorical devices in AP English 12 at WCHS. Thank God he had good English teachers. Without them, he’d probably be less functional as a human being.
“Walnut Creek” is interesting lyrically. Morris’s phrasing and delivery is solid, and the story the song tells is an interesting fabrication of local legend, the speaker claiming that the tears of a young woman whose beau left town for good “became Walnut Creek,” a Warsaw landmark not far from the old farmhouse where perhaps the greatest of Warsaw artists, the Devil’s Dictionary author and black humorist Ambrose Bierce, grew up.
“Ledge” is an absolutely fantastic tune. Five lines of lyrics and the repetition of “you lie on my ledge, lie on” with an absolutely perfect backing vocal track that enriches Morris’s lead vocal. In fact I shouldn’t go without saying that Morris has a talent for phrasing and delivery when singing. There’s a quality in his voice equal to other singers who do a lot with natural talents that are not overwhelming, artists like Bob Dylan or Robert Pollard or Liz Phair who may not be pitch perfect, but who know how to marry what they’re saying and how they’re saying it well. I’m not saying the album is Highway 61 Revisited for the new decade, but it’s a talent that deserves a mention, and that elevates songs that might otherwise sound pretty average to a higher level of competency.
Despite that, “Barstool Prophets” is a swing and a miss on the album. The lyrics are a bit heavy-handed in their assertion that “this town that burns around us is a goddamn living hell” (a contention I personally disagree with, having come back to Warsaw to work and raise my kids), although there are some nice lines here and there, such as ‘the only thing we ever do is try to pretend that we’re wise / So then we all wind up opening our mouths more often than our eyes.” Musically, the flourishes of noise that back the guitar and vocals obscure the lyrics too often in a song that’s all about the story Morris is trying to tell of sitting on a barstool, talking with a drinker, musing about “why this town haunts my brain.” As for the guitar line, it sounds like a bunch of rather nonspectacular strumming. There’s no hook to carry the words through.
Morris ends the album with “Empty House,” an appropriately quiet, simple song about sitting alone at home during a thunderstorm. The guitar sounds different than most of the other songs, more picking than strumming, his voice raised just above the level of a whisper as he repeats the lines “nothing I want more than you / empty house, empty rooms” to end the album. The Great Indiana Corn Detasseling Album by Andrew Morris and friends, a simply recorded but well-done tribute to his often-vexing hometown of Warsaw, Indiana, is worth repeat listening.
You can find it here: http://stumpythematchseller.bandcamp.com/album/the-great-corn-detasseling-album
November 27, 2011